The E-learner’s guide to super engaging content

Engagement, a word that has garnered a mystical-like status due to its notorious unattainability. From marketing to entertainment, publishing to relationships, almost all areas of human interaction seek it but none more than the education space.

Unpacking memory, and how it works, shines a little light into why engagement is so sought after. In order for something to be remembered, attention is required. The brain requires focus in order to gather the required details about the subject matter and encode the memory – specifically when forming declarative or explicit memories. These are the memories that relate to people, places and objects and are fundamental to retention and learning.

It’s the content that counts

Let’s face it, corporate training material isn’t the first thing to come to mind when someone says “engaging”. When e-learning started gaining traction in the ‘90s, many industries preached the downfall of traditional learning with doomsday-like vigour. This created a fear of falling behind and accelerated the development of e-learning.

Unfortunately, as with any fear-driven adoption, little thought was given to engagement, thus resulting in glorified PowerPoint presentations. And if you have spent any time in a boardroom, you’ll understand why PPT style instructional design led to a negative perception of e-learning.

Even when engagement was considered, it was immature at best. Companies opted for flash over substance, forgetting that engagement is about the content.

Quality, however, isn’t the only yard stick. No matter how well a childish cartoon character is designed, it’s probably not going to keep a corporate banker engaged. The content must be produced with the audience in mind.

Not only must the content be tailored for the audience, it needs to be strategically developed. Simply ‘digitising’ content from the physical realm is not enough to hold attention. This is where an instructional designer comes in. They ensure that the content is tailored for the audience. Instructional designers also consider the medium upon which that audience accesses content, ensuring that it is geared for learner engagement.

Learning content is worthless if it doesn’t hold attention.

A story is worth a thousand ideas

Building on that thinking, the narrative has been revealed to be the true protagonist. Long before humans could read or write, they relied on story-telling to learn. If someone saw a Sabretooth Tiger lurking left of a waterfall, you can be sure that they told someone about it.

Back in those days, it was imperative that we learned from these stories. Our lives literally depended on the successful transferal of ideas and knowledge, and stories were a natural way to communicate them. These days it is not so different, and this is precisely why stories are so often used to create engaging e-learning solutions.

But not all stories are equal; great stories have some important commonalities. And in order to make e-learning effective, these commonalities should be considered by instructional designers.

Be simple

The mind will remember something simple over something complex. It’s easier to focus on and requires less energy to interpret.

Appeal to emotions

The mind will remember emotional experiences, probably because they engage more of our brain, and capture more of our attention.

Be believable

This is something that is true for most levels of communication. We are exceptional at picking up whether something is authentic or not and we are far more likely to buy in to something that comes from a credible source. Even with fantasy, stories need to be anchored in some way. If they are too far-fetched, they lose their impact. Similarly, if the learning material isn’t credible, it will likely be forgotten.

Make the content relatable

Listeners need to be able to put themselves into the proverbial shoes of the characters. Directly related to authenticity, listeners will find a story far more memorable if they can relate to the characters or events within it.

This is partly due to the assumed context that is required to get the ‘full picture’, but mostly due to the conscious real-estate involved. If we can relate, we can give the story more of our attention.

The same is true for e-learning. Relatable material is a massive driver of engagement, and learners are far more likely to understand the concepts being communicated if there is common ground.

Gamification isn’t the answer – fun is!

We have all had those moments while playing a sport, a game or even while immersed in an interesting conversation, where the world falls away. These moments are so profound because they take up all of our attention, and they take up all of our attention because we enjoy them; we allow ourselves to become immersed.

So gamifying e-learning material is not about games, but rather about enjoyment.

Enjoyment, contrary to the etheric personal notion we all have, is about chemicals. Every good feeling we experience is created by the secretion of an endorphin in the brain.

And one of the biggest culprits is dopamine – our reward chemical.

When we achieve something, dopamine is released. In fact, some studies suggest that dopamine has other functions:

  • Liking – the experience of pleasure when we achieve something
  • Learning – the coding of a memory in order to be able to repeat that pleasing activity
  • Wanting – the motivation to repeat the pleasure causing activity

Recently, studies have shown that positive emotions improve learning and motivation. Most conclude that positive emotions increase our focus in the present moment. And, you guessed it, focus is attention, and attention fuels engagement.

It is no wonder that gamification has become so popular in the e-learning industry. But it isn’t the competition that engages us, but rather the enjoyment.

Visual design is more feel than look

Great design is more than visually pleasing aesthetics, it needs to take the medium, audience and content into account. All too often, design is developed independently of the actual content; with potentially disastrous results.

Deisgn also affects how we perceive the task.

In a study conducted by the University of Michigan, participants perceived a given task to be more difficult or require more skill simply because it was written in a font that’s difficult to read. They mistook the cognitive load of reading the task for the difficulty of doing the task.

So, great visual design is not just a ‘nice-to-have’ but rather has a direct influence on the actual learning material as well as the perceived difficulty of it. And, once again, these are directly related to the amount of attention a learner will give the e-learning content.

Whether it’s the medium or the aesthetics, the story or the mechanics, they all contribute to creating an experience and, if done well, engagement. And that is what is fundamental to effective learning. ‘Engagement’ emerges over and over as a catalyst to learning.

Or as Benjamin Franklin said:

“Tell me and I’ll forget. Teach me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll learn.”

This article was written by TTRO but first published on eLearning Industry.

Author: Kyle Hauptfleisch

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